Oct 31 2013

Open Letter to Republican Members of Congress

Tomorrow (Nov. 1) legislation many of you insisted on will deprive many Americans of their basic need for food by making large cuts in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program for food stamps.
MilitaryTimes.com published the numbers of veterans and even active duty military troops who will lose food stamps for themselves and their families as about 900,000 veterans and 5,000 active duty troops.
That is a fraction compared to Americans who lost their jobs and have not succeeded in finding work as well as all those who do not make a living wage at low end jobs.
So many of them have families to feed, and only food stamps have ensured that their kids did not go hungry.
Then there are the elderly on fixed incomes that don’t stretch as far as they’d hoped. Often the recession took their retirement savings. That’s a group with higher medical costs too as a factor. The disabled are another large group of food stamp recipients.
Food stamps are also income for grocers and everyone in the supply chain. Cutting them hurts the broader American economy, not just the lives of Americans living in quiet desperation.
I simply cannot fathom how any member of Congress can possibly justify such a heartless vote, or live with the consequences.
Malnourished children do not learn well. Their bellies hurt too much to think, their minds are consumed with getting their basic needs met, not learning. Quite often they are sick more and miss school, or their parents spend all the gas money to buy them food and then can’t get them to school. Malnourished adults are not as productive as those who have enough to eat for the same reasons. That adds to economic slowdown.
Knowing Americans are suffering from hunger undermines all confidence in America as a great nation, the richest on earth. Confidence is an enormous factor in economic recovery.
Recently The Scientific American published research done at Berkeley that showed that the wealthy have less empathy than do those of more modest means. Why is that? Is it that the cost of getting elected has become so great that very few who are not wealthy get elected these days?
Those of you who sit on the House budget committee, aren’t you especially responsible for these cuts to food stamps?
Now House Republicans are pushing to cut an additional $40 billion, meaning another 6 million Americans would lose food assistance completely. Have you lost your souls up there in Congress as well as your hearts and your minds?
Those cuts are immoral, they hurt real people, many of them sweet, hard-working, self-sacrificing adults, and innocent little kids, kids who don’t understand.
I don’t understand either. All I know is that I have never in my life cried because of an act of Congress, and I’m 60 years old. I’m crying as I write this. I think of my former students and their families, and individuals and families I’ve gotten to know through the ministries of my church.
It breaks my heart to think of people already struggling and then going under because of the transformation of Congress from one that represents the people to one that represents the wealthy and the industries that make them so. Our founding fathers would be heartbroken too.
Congress once was a hallowed and respected place that wielded power often to the benefit of all Americans. That was in my lifetime, and I looked up to those who served there. Now it has devolved into a mean, flint-hard place. A place of no compromise, no friends who aren’t in the same party, no reconciliation, and almost completely dysfunctional.
God, soften and transform the hearts of those serving in Congress now. Shake them up and out of the deep ruts they are in. Afflict the comfortable once again, so that their minds and hearts change. May the renewing of their minds cause them and others to comfort the afflicted, those you love so much.

Oct 15 2013

Ahead of her time

My mom, Anne McAfee, would have been 83 years old today. If you read the obituary I posted earlier, you know a bit about how remarkable she was.

These last few days, we had a family reunion of her kids, our spouses, and Dad at Galveston, renting a house right on the beach. Galveston was synonymous with vacation while we were growing up and our time there was blessed.

During our reminiscences, the words a nephew shared at Mom’s funeral came up. They weren’t his own words, they were the words of his partner. Jack couldn’t be there, but he’d asked Emerson to read his message for him.

It was 6 years ago and I decided to surprise Emerson (whom I had met just the week before) in Austin, on his winter break. I figured at some point on the trip I would be meeting his family. Not knowing a whole lot about his family, I questioned how Texans from an older generation would react when they met me: the first gay boyfriend Emerson has ever introduced them to, and a guy who was 12 years older than Emerson (who was only 20 at the time). On paper those things didn’t read so good.
All of these things plagued me on my trip. And how did Anne McAfee, Emerson’s Grandmother, react? By throwing a brunch in my honor the next day that some of the extended family would attend.
And Anne’s first question for me? When would I be moving to Austin?
These two first impressions did just that: impressed me. I learned two major things about her that day: 1) she was fiercely democratic, open-minded and inclusive. There was not one moment in which I felt awkward or out of place, and she made sure of that. 2) She was fiercely loyal to Austin and to her family and wanted them all together in the place she loved and fought for. I think it would have been easier for her to live somewhere that more closely fit with her vision of democracy and fairness, but Anne was a fighting spirit who would rather stay in the place she loved and fight from the inside to make it a better place. And she most definitely did.
She did this in very public ways, as she protested and fought for all the movements she believed in. But she more profoundly did it in a quiet way by instilling her beliefs, gumption and fortitude in the large lineage of her family. Her children and grandchildren embody these ideals. I see it every day in Emerson and his siblings, and I see it in the generation above him. It’s almost trite to say that when one passes their spirit lives on in those they touched. But in the case of Anne, this is palpable and remarkable.
Rest in peace to a woman I respected from day one, and whose legacy will live on in tremendous ways.

Emerson told us that Mom’s generous acceptance and inclusion especially moved Jack because his own parents had been far less accepting of Jack’s sexual orientation, and that Jack was taking Mom’s death very hard.

If I’ve done the math correctly, Mom would have been 76 when she first met Jack. As people go through life they often become broader and more inclusive, just from learning to know people and finding prejudices falling away. Apparently that’s not how it was with Mom though.

Dad told us that when Mom was in high school (at the old Austin High School), there were two boys she knew who were largely shunned for being different, queer. Mom befriended them and was not at all concerned that hanging out with them cost her friends and acceptance.

In a day when homosexuality was considered a perversion and a disease by many Americans, my mom’s instinct for justice, fair treatment, inclusion, and kindness were already deeply rooted in her character.

Jesus taught the Golden Rule: “Do to others that which you would have them do to you.” Notice how active that command is. It’s not merely abstaining from doing bad to someone so they won’t do tit for tat. Instead it is all about actively doing good to others.

Mom lived by that principle. Her life work was to work each day on making our common life together a life with justice, equal value and rights, and decent treatment for all.

Aug 24 2013

Two kinds of Christians?

I recently discovered a gem of an author, Os Guinness. Guinness, a Christian born to missionary parents in China and a descendant of the Irish brewer whose beer shares the family name, came to visit friends in the U.S. about 25 years ago and fell in love with the country. He has made his home here ever since.

He is a “man of letters,” someone who writes thoughtfully and with beauty. Now that I have discovered his writing (I’ve just finished his The Case for Civility), I am looking forward to reading many more books he has written. His explication of the genius of the First Amendment on religion should be widely read by all those who love the ideals on which this country was founded.

I’m going to be mulling over – and rereading – Guinness’s rather urgent book. But today I want to mention just one point he made.

“The Christian church over the centuries has carried its universal message in two entirely contradictory ways – the way of Jesus of Nazareth and the way of the Roman emperor Constantine…The way of Jesus was the way of a servant, emptying himself of legitimate power, and being prepared to suffer and die in carrying out his task. The way of Constantine, on the other hand, was the way of a conqueror able to impose his will on the world despite all resistance.”

Poster with quote from Martin Luther King Jr.

What is true religion?

For years I’ve been baffled by those claiming to be Christian who don’t take Jesus as their pattern or try to do as He did. Guinness put his finger on the source of my consternation.

The emperor Constantine. Constantine co-opted Christianity in the 4th century, and claimed to become a Christian. But in reality he redefined Christianity and transformed it – not for the better.

He gave the power of the state to the Church and the power of the Church to the state – and led generations of those who think they are Christians astray.

C.S. Lewis would consider it one of Satan’s most clever seductions.

The Constantine-Christians fail to read and comprehend Jesus’s life and ministry.

He warned those who heard him, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

Elsewhere He said, “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” Matthew 25:45.

How frustrating it is to those of us who pattern our lives on Jesus and consider it our moral charge to care for those He cared for to have the Constantine-type “Christians” be the ones who are constantly heard from, who seem to be the only representation of Christ many Americans ever see, thanks to a media obsessed with controversy and power.

But those so-called Christians actually misrepresent Christ; they defame Him. They raise a stench that repulses and turns away those Jesus would reach and save. In my book, that makes them enemies of God.

My anger at their defamation turns into sadness when I remember how they fool themselves into thinking they are Christians. They long for God but have been led astray. So sad. But is it too late?

Never. Not for the God of infinite second chances.

 

Jul 25 2013

Comfort from Canada

Photo of my mother's first cousin, Frank Faulk.

Frank Faulk

My cousin, Frank Faulk, lives in Canada. Among an outpouring of love and sympathy upon the death of my mother, Frank’s words stood out.

My heart goes out to all my McAfee kin in Texas at this very sad time. I am so glad that I had the opportunity share some of my thoughts with my cousin Anne before she died. I told her how thankful I was for her gift as the family archivist, and that she had been given a strong sense of my Texas roots. I remember Anne sending me a picture of my great grandfather Layfyette Faulk, dressed in buckskins and holding a musket rifle. It was then that I began to realize that my story was part of a much larger story. I did not feel so alone.

I realize now that Anne’s passion for social justice was not just driven by her political beliefs but I think a deeply spiritual quality that sought to remind each of us that our stories are part of a much bigger story, one that is about inclusiveness, compassion, and righteousness. And whether one believes in God or not, there is something intrinsically holy about giving your life to that.

After I got off the phone with Anne I realized that there was so much more I wanted to say. If I had more time I would have told Anne that as she continues her journey through eternity, to keep following the light as she has done in her life time. I would tell her that we are thankful to her for reminding us of that light in our own lives, and that it only continues to shine because people like Anne refuse to let darkness have the final word.

Much love to all,
Frank Faulk

“It is right, it should be so, man was made for joy and woe.
And when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.”
~ William Blake

 

 

Jul 21 2013

Anne C. McAfee, October 15, 1930 – July 13, 2013. Obituary for my mother.

Photo of my mother in 1948

Anne C. McAfee at 18.

Austin lost one of her staunchest progressive activists on Saturday, July 13, 2013.

Anne McAfee, a lifelong Austinite who had been actively involved in state and local politics for the better part of seven decades, died peacefully at home surrounded by her family. Anne suffered from complications following a stroke that occurred while she was attending and supporting the recent filibuster on women’s rights at the Texas State Capitol. She was 82.

Born Anne Elizabeth Castleberry, Anne grew up in her Faulk grandparents’ 1890s home on a small farm in what was then semi-rural South Austin. As a teenager her chores included carrying in wood for the stoves and milking the family’s cows each morning before going off to school.

In addition to her grandparents and her mother – English teacher Martha Faulk Castleberry – Anne grew up in the large farm home with aunts, uncles and numerous cousins, as well as other relatives and friends who might drop in just for a visit but end up “staying a spell.” Her aunt, Mary Faulk Koock, established Green Pastures Restaurant in this lovely home in 1946.

The family home was a place where no topic was too sacred for discussion— where politics, religion, education and child-rearing were regular topics around the dinner table or while gathered out on the front porch. The Faulk home had been the location for numerous meetings of the local Women’s Suffrage movement in the decade before Anne was born and her grandmother and others talked often of those efforts and of advancing women’s rights further. Grace Methodist Church was the center of the family’s social lives and the basis for their social justice activities.

In the Faulk home Anne developed a profound love of America and its founding ideals and developed a deep commitment to principles of justice and inclusion for all. Helping America live up to those principles and become that “more perfect union” guided her life and her activism.

Anne got hooked on politics as a 13-year-old volunteer in the 1944 Minnie Fisher Cunningham for Governor campaign. Twenty-five years earlier “Minnie Fish” had been president of the Texas Women’s Suffrage Association and Anne liked to point out that Texas got the right to vote for women two years before it became law nationally.

Anne graduated from old Austin High in 1948 and attended UT as a history major until 1952 when she married Bill McAfee, who had come to Austin from Corsicana to attend the University of Texas. Having five children in quick succession, Anne was a homemaker for a good many years, active in teaching swimming lessons, the PTA, carpooling, etc.

After the children were older, Anne edited their weekly newspaper, The Austin Times, a monthly magazine, Go Austin!, and helped Bill in all of their other business ventures. A serious student of history and public affairs, she devoured information, subscribing to The Congressional Record as well as numerous other political publications. Historians as well as local, state, and even national political candidates often turned to her for her in-depth knowledge of legislative affairs and Texas and national politics.

Throughout her life Anne was deeply involved in numerous campaigns from the courthouse to the White House. At age 17, she attended the Progressive Party Convention in Philadelphia and supported Henry Wallace for President. Although she loved riding horses, she sold her treasured saddle to get the money for the trip.

Among others, she worked to elect Ralph Yarborough to the U.S. Senate; campaigned for Henry B. Gonzalez for Governor; was a statewide coordinator for George McGovern for President; and served as campaign treasurer for John Courage and for Maria Canchola.

Anne was also one of the original founders of the Save Barton Creek Association, served for many years as an officer and newsletter editor for the Austin League of Women Voters and the Travis County Democratic Women’s Committee, and represented their senatorial district as committeewoman on the State Democratic Executive Committee. She and Bill were part of the original group of Yeller Dawg Democrats who have been meeting each Saturday for more than 20 years.

Besides working for progressive candidates, Anne worked tirelessly to help create an America that offered liberty, justice, and opportunity for all. She worked for causes that included ending nuclear proliferation, ending war, protecting the environment, promoting civil rights for minorities and farm workers, protecting women’s rights, and providing health care for all.

Photo of Anne McAfee just before her stroke.

Anne McAfee at Texas Capitol during Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster.

Anne worked for years on compiling the history of the seven generations of her family in Austin and had nearly finished her book at the time of her death. She took pride in her deep Texas roots as a member of one of the families who received a land grant from Stephen F. Austin. She loved her large extended family deeply, and imparted a legacy of political engagement to be passed on to future generations.

Anne is survived by her husband of 61 years, Bill McAfee; children Susan Raybuck, Mark McAfee, Karen Kate McAfee, Laura O’Neill, and Nancy Dyer; sons-in-law Perry Raybuck and Allan Dyer; grandchildren David Raybuck, Abigail Daigle, Sean Raybuck, Adrienne O’Neill, Amanda Adele McAfee, Kaela Dyer Luna, Kevin Deckard McAfee, Emerson McAfee, Garrett Dyer, Kenny O’Neill, Jeff McAfee Deckard, and Sarah O’Neill; and great-grandchildren Sydney, Perry, Harper, and Everlee.

The family would like to thank the extraordinary staff at Brackenridge Hospital and at Hospice Austin, as well as Tad Davis, M.D. who stepped forward to help Anne at the Capitol immediately following her stroke and who accompanied her from the Capitol to Brackenridge.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Anne McAfee Fund at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas (PPGT), 201 East Ben White Blvd., Bldg B, Austin 78704; Capitol Area Food Bank of Texas, 8201 South Congress Ave, Austin 78745; or SafePlace, P.O. Box 19454, Austin 78760. Funeral services occurred early Saturday for her large extended family.

A celebration of her life for family, friends, and acquaintances was held on Saturday, July 20th at 2 p.m. at Green Pastures, 811 W. Live Oak Street, Anne’s childhood home.

Mar 27 2013

Reflections on war, Eurocentrism, and racism

I’ve been cogitating all week on the connection between war and the lust for land and the way we perceive people of other races and ethnicities.

What do governments or peoples do when they prepare to go to war against another nation or people? They try to make it seem justified, just like humans always do when they want their own way.

The drumbeat of war starts, with stories showing the negatives about the other side. Stories of how vicious, brutal, depraved, treacherous, uncivilized, and different the other is become part of the propaganda. The process of distorting the humanity of the other cranks up.

“See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”

George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States

To make it possible for soldiers to kill another human being takes that process. They cannot be seen as human, with families who love them, as people capable of humor, kindness, generosity, nobility, or love. Likewise, taking the land of another and exploiting them also requires dehumanizing them. So the names come. Chink. Gook. Jap. Wop. Dago. Nigger. Greaser. Raghead. And the labels: lazy, savage, greedy, shifty, scrawny, tricky, dirty.

Prosperity and success get equated with being superior. Poverty and being a victim are marks of inferiority in such a world view.

Repeating the names and slurs, having them reinforced by friends and colleagues, build a deep contempt for the other and a sense of their own superiority, a superiority that gives them a sense of entitlement, that imposing their will on others is justified. Many of the soldiers then are able to shoot another human being and kill or enslave them, and sometimes, too often, to commit atrocities in the process.

Post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers and suicidal tendencies have been linked in many circumstances to the guilt of killing others, especially when victims are innocent civilians or when soldiers bear guilt over their own brutality.

The continents and peoples most victimized by European conquest were on the receiving end of the names and slurs. The peoples of Africa, North and South America, China, and India were some targeted for conquest. The legacy of that history is that those same groups continue to a greater or lesser extent to have been saddled with the derogatory labels into perpetuity.

Literature and art certainly perpetuated the stereotypes. But with the advent of film and television, the stereotypes in the Eurocentrism that is so prevalent seem to have been invested with an even greater dark power.

As Robert Stam and Ella Shohat point out in a chapter written for Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader (edited by D.T. Goldberg, 1994),

“Eurocentrism minimizes the West’s oppressive practices by regarding them as contingent, accidental, exceptional. Western colonialism, slave trading, and imperialism are not seen as fundamental causes of the West’s disproportionate power…Eurocentrism sanitizes Western history while patronizing and even demonizing the non-West; it thinks of itself in terms of its noblest achievements – science, progress, humanism – but of the non-West in terms of its deficiencies, real or imagined.”

Racism is the bitter legacy of the sins of our fathers, it appears. It won’t go away anytime soon. Not as long as we associate light and white with purity and goodness and darkness with sin and evil.

Even as I write this conclusion, my eyes land on my own words above and see that I actually used the words dark power to refer to evil. It makes me aware again of how being washed from birth to the present in this “cultural stew” creeps into our unconscious minds and permeates our thinking, even when we try to confront it.

It is so hard to recognize the truth of our own evil, so easy for us to justify and excuse ourselves – all the while judging the sins of others. We don’t want to see our own actions or that of our government (or a President) as evil.

I have the conviction that the only way to ever free oneself from the racism, sexism, and other stereotypes of our society requires such focused awareness and such intense concentrated attention to guarding against the least trace.of bigotry that I despair of being able to fully achieve it. All I can do will be to try to catch my failures, repudiate them, and hope for help in rooting them out of my life.

I wish it were possible to be the person I want to be. But if I could, I wouldn’t need redemption and I wouldn’t have the blessing of experiencing unconditional love and forgiveness. After Maundy Thursday, there is Easter!

 

 

Mar 21 2013

Overwhelmed by the flood of stereotypes

Raised in a liberal family (mom was a political activist, dad was a union organizer turned businessman) in the nineteen sixties, there was much in both my family and in the culture at large to shape my world view.

My parents were passionate about social justice and civil rights issues. We watched and discussed all the news about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. So, as much as one could while awash in a society in which racial stereotyping and prejudice is pervasive, I was raised to see Black Americans as real people.

That is despite the fact that my family had black maids to help with the cooking and cleaning for our large family. They were treated with dignity and respect, although not really as a part of the family. Class seemed a bit of a barrier more than did race – except that in America no one is ever free of having that as a part of the equation in any mixed race groups I suppose.

Issues of race and justice, prejudice and discrimination, were often topics around the dinner table and in the car. We were actively taught to treat people of other races well. The only time I ever was spanked for using a bad word was when I came home from a neighborhood friend’s house talking about her new doll, her “nigger baby.” I’m not sure I had a clue when I used the term that she called the doll that because it was black, and I just used the term because she had. I must have been around four or five years old at the time.

Nevertheless…my brother and I played cowboys and Indians with other kids in the neighborhood every Saturday morning after the Lone Ranger show ended. Commonly used phrases about Chinese fire drills seeped into our vocabulary. We absorbed parental teachings about the danger of ever dating a black person each time my mom read about a lynching anywhere in the country.

The Mexican-American children in my classes wore clothes that were older and their body language (in my mind, anyway) seemed to separate us. I couldn’t name it at the time, but I think class, and maybe living in a culture as full of prejudice as ours, colored my attitude to thinking of them as not quite equal.

A book on prejudice that I read as a teenager made me realize it was very unlikely that I would be able to escape absorbing the prejudice in our culture. Sadly, I have not. But I’ve been on the lookout for those ideas and tried to root them out and ask forgiveness (in my heart, since the thoughts – fortunately – were never spoken aloud).

But as I read the chapter on racial stereotyping and prejudice and was reminded just how deep and wide  the sea of negative images are in our culture, I realized that I’ve glossed over and failed to catch the many times I unthinkingly said or thought something that was a stereotype. The sad thing is that I never stopped to consider the cumulative impact of all the many stereotypes on those who are black or Latino, Asian or Native American. I never let it come up into my consciousness.

When I’m very sleep deprived, I’ve caught myself making Chinese laundry jokes or some such. Seems sort of funny and harmless – but the chapter has me thinking. I realize that I seem to have been captured by the culture to a far greater extent than I was previously aware. Shame on me.

I begin to see how very hard it is to stay free of that stuff. It involves paying attention – and we are a distracted, busy society for the most part. Intentionality plus vigilance, setting a guard on myself in essence. A big job to catch and stop my participation in the culture when it spreads negative stereotypes and racism to some degree to just about all of us.

Whew! I wonder if I can keep that focus and root it out. I’m one of those excessively busy, distracted workaholics. But maybe with a little attention and practice, that will improve bit by bit. It’ll take practice to make it into a habit.

 

Mar 06 2013

Seventeen magazine and teen angst

Some forty-five years ago, I was a fairly typical adolescent girl growing up in a white, middle class household in Austin. The messages from mass media that I encountered then were not very different from many of those detailed in the research we’ve read so far this semester.

Growing up, Mom would not buy any of her four girls a Barbie, no matter how much we begged or whined. My best friend had Barbie, Ken, and Midge and I had unrequited envy for their sophisticated-seeming persona – so grown up after other dolls. Mom wasn’t much on dolls at all, now that I think of it, but she particularly despised Barbie.  I sensed that my mother hated the stereotypes Barbie represented.

Mom was bright, college-educated, and had volunteered in her first political campaign – for a female candidate for governor – at the age of thirteen. She was, and still is, a lifelong political activist and a fount of knowledge about American politics and history.

Seventeen magazine was a gift subscription from someone in the family. Mom? Surely not. My conservative grandfather and his wife? My grandmother and he had divorced when my mother was quite young. He was a Son of the American Revolution with John Birch Society leanings, who had kidnapped my mother not once but twice in the years following the divorce. Mom was always very stiff when they came for a visit.

I was a socially awkward child, painfully shy outside of my family and neighborhood, with my nose in a book much of the time. After we moved out of our neighborhood to a suburban home big enough for the seven of us, books became my refuge. I didn’t need to notice my lack of friends or figure out how to strike up a conversation with kids at my new school.

Through Seventeen, with its emphasis on fashion, make-up, and dating, I became more aware than ever of everything I lacked. No real friends, no popularity, unathletic, unstylish, unskilled in applying nail polish or makeup – and quickly frustrated and bored with my few attempts to do so, which seemed to take an inordinate amount of time for pretty unattractive results.

I think Seventeen more than anything else gave me expectations about what I should be and do – none of which I was capable of at the time.

More than four decades have passed since I was a teen, but I well remember the self-doubt and depression of that time period. I couldn’t imagine how anyone would ever find me interesting to have as a friend, that I had no talents and would never be able to get a job, and that no man would ever love me because I was no different from anyone else.

Little did I realize that I was internalizing the messages of what was attractive to men, in what theorists call the social theory of learning.

In actuality, I simply had no real life kinds of experiences to have any idea of any talents or gifts I might have. As a reader, I had interest in the world and knowledge of many things even through the fiction I mostly read at the time. I also had my mom and dad’s interest in social justice issues and making the world a better place through activism. (Even shy people can wave a sign and march.) So instead of the nonentity I thought of myself, I was a not untypical shy teen with a very undifferentiated sense of self.

Luckily, college – and a little judicious meddling from my mom, who signed me up for a session on building trust, hoping to help me overcome the painful shyness – got me through the depression of high school where I never fit in and was the proverbial wall flower. College was interesting and I bloomed there – especially through some  friends I made with several bright, funny, interesting feminists.

I was still a voracious reader, and much of it was still fiction, so I never read all the feminist literature of the time. But through the influence of my friends, who started a women’s consciousness raising group and asked me to join them, I learned of  the feminist movement. I learned skills of talking in a group as well as attitudes of equality that have stood me in good stead all my life. The shyness receded. The “rap” group experience freed me to a large extent from stereotypes of what women were supposed to look like, be, and do.

Sometime I need to look Angalene, Barbara, Nancy Jane, Colleen, and Elaine up and tell them how grateful I am – and how much I miss them and our time together. The lessons were priceless and I treasure the memories.

 

 

 

Feb 27 2013

Advertising’s dark side

The dark arts of illusion, seduction, and manipulation are at the heart of the advertising industry. The Faustian bargain of the media is to provide their news, drama, and entertainment to the viewer, listener, or reader at a deep discount and exchange their integrity for advertising dollars to subsidize that discount. The advertisers get the medium’s audience delivered to it with content they get to shape in substantial ways to maximize the size of the audience.

One saw the result in the Great Recession where governmental, business, and media elites continued to overwhelmingly dominate all discussions of the economic crisis, and very few stories revealed the depth of the impact on real Americans’ lives. Millions lost jobs, but in this ‘brave new world’ they remained faceless, voiceless numbers.

We almost never heard their stories in their own voices as their lives came apart. First millions endured layoffs, then the frantic search for more work while bills began to pile up, then the house goes into foreclosure or they are evicted, then moving. Where? Who knows? In with friends or family, moving from couch to couch, uprooted and moving on in search of work?

Those stories had to remain untold, undoubtedly because they would make advertisers’ audience angry or afraid, or decide to give their time and money to try to help others rather than continue to spend it on mindless consumerism.

Through a rapidly changing society following the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, advertisers stayed in their ruts, focused on materialistic values, and only reluctantly changed from the stereotyping of people of color one group at a time, only when pushed.

Ms. magazine tried hard to find a new advertising sustained model that suited the interests of their readers and the content of their magazine. But the stereotypes of the advertisers were often an insurmountable barrier to convincing many of them to try a fresh approach that would appeal to the Ms. reader – even though a new, desirable audience was being offered to advertisers. Had they embraced the opportunity they may well have won vast numbers of loyal customers, but the intelligent woman seemed to be a market that they didn’t really want.

“…the ads sell a great deal more than products. They sell values, images and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be. Sometimes they sell addictions.”                                                                               -Jean Kilbourne

The most appalling of the three articles for me was Jean Kilbourne’s “Beauty and the Beast of Advertising.” The images of impossibly thin, beautiful, perfect people and the way ads so often link the product being sold with a supernatural ability to make the consumer the envy of everyone, more sociable, confident, popular. Vulnerable people are induced to measure themselves against those phony images and find themselves wanting – all so they can be manipulated into buying the product being sold. As inexperienced consumers, adolescents are highly desirable targets for the advertising industry and especially vulnerable to those messages, more easily preyed upon so that they develop brand loyalty.

How much culpability does the advertising industry bear, I wonder, for the increase in depression, alienation, addiction, and perhaps even suicide among our youth? And what can be done to give our young people tools with which to arm themselves so that they can resist the dark side of advertising?

 

Feb 21 2013

Feminine upward mobility a la the Cosmo Girl

“Inventing the Cosmo Girl” hit me viscerally – and then reading much of Cosmopolitan for Latinas right after finishing the article, I confess that the most accurate description of my reaction is appalled. I am trying to tease out some of my thoughts from the midst of all the feelings.

One thought is how stultifying it would be to spend all of one’s time and energy trying to transform oneself to create an illusion of beauty and to use one’s sexuality to elicit gifts from dates, to always be on the lookout for a man from a higher class to “land.” The very opposite of women’s liberation, despite the sexual liberation (if one can call it that) in Helen Gurly Brown’s message.

As a self-described materialist, Brown had a transactional view of male-female relationships, it seems to me. Become eye-candy, create illusion, improve one’s techniques, one’s body, one’s attitude, and attempt to exchange the “beautiful phoniness” for “marrying up.”  Even advice on jettisoning the wrong man (working class) and going after men even if they are married in the pursuit of their goals for economic advancement..

Brown’s version of feminine upward mobility advised shortcuts. Personal agency and hard work, sure, to exercise and diet, to purchase various cosmetics, clothes, shoes, to become invaluable to male employers with the idea of making that more than just a working relationship. But rather than use education to gain skills to gain a high-paying job, through Cosmopolitan’s articles she promoted the idea that women should go to technical school just to get somewhat middle class service jobs (secretary, stenographer) so that they could have access to more men.

How is that different from prostitution, exactly?

It seems to me that it allowed women the mental distance to deny to themselves that that’s what they were doing.

It would be fascinating to read research that investigated how women who had bought into the Cosmo Girl approach to betterment in the 1970s and 1980s feel about their choices, their mates, and their lives in hindsight, and to find out divorce statistics for that group, measures of satisfaction and happiness now, and to compare the results for those with readers of Ms.

By advising women to focus on appearance in themselves and material gains, it seems to me that Brown pushed women to find mates obsessed with appearance. Were such mates more likely to dump them as they aged and their looks were no longer so sexy? More likely to cheat? More likely to discover they’d been manipulated into marriage and to develop resentment for the woman they married? Were those marriages less stable?

Phoniness is not a sound basis for work relationships, marriage relationships, or friendships. It paves the way to ever lower self-esteem. For Helen Gurley Brown to seduce millions of readers into following such a path, and taking advantage of their insecurity to gain riches and fame without any regard for the long-term consequences of her advice on those readers strikes me as immoral and revolting.

The feminist movement seems to me the more honest and hopeful one. By encouraging women’s sense of agency, empowering them to dream new dreams for their lives beyond cultural stereotypes, it fostered creativity and growth. That is real liberation, not the false one of Helen Gurly Brown’s Cosmo Girl.

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